Brian Garish: “Strategy without empathy is wasted”

Culture matters. Never underestimate the power of a positive culture. What I mean by this is when you’re faced with a challenge, encourage associates to be solutions minded as you address challenges in your organization. I encourage my team to use “yes, and” thinking so we can build off each other’s good ideas to find the […]

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Culture matters. Never underestimate the power of a positive culture. What I mean by this is when you’re faced with a challenge, encourage associates to be solutions minded as you address challenges in your organization. I encourage my team to use “yes, and” thinking so we can build off each other’s good ideas to find the right solution. It is amazing how creative people can be if they are encouraged in the right way to find solutions.

Aspart of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Garish.

Brian is the president of Banfield Pet Hospital, the veterinary industry’s leading provider of preventive care. He oversees Banfield’s 1,000+ hospitals and 19,000+ associates where his top priority is creating a high-performing, inclusive culture. Brian began his career stocking store shelves at Walgreens, working his way up to area vice president for CVS Health and eventually making the transition from human healthcare to pet healthcare. Since taking over as president of Banfield in 2017, Brian has helped the company achieve the lowest turnover in its history while simultaneously achieving double-digit revenue growth.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Thank you for inviting me! I’ll start out by sharing that I haven’t had a traditional career path. My journey began stocking store shelves as a 16-year-old, working my way up at Walgreens and later CVS Health. I am now honored to be the president of Banfield Pet Hospital, the veterinary industry’s leading provider of preventive care, overseeing 1,000+ hospitals and 19,000+ associates.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I’ve never sat in a corner office or followed a traditional leadership trajectory. My early experiences on the ground floor and in entry-level positions gave me a unique vantage point where I saw firsthand the effects of different leadership styles on individuals and on organizations. These experiences pushed me to think differently about leadership and redefine what it means to truly lead. A critical perspective I gained is the importance of fostering a two-way dialogue with our associates and practicing empathy during these conversations. As a result of how my career started and the experiences I’ve had along the way, I have a different view of thought leadership than most executives might. For me, being a thought leader means breaking down barriers to connect, listening at scale and learning from our associates in order to solve problems for our organization, the broader veterinary industry and society at large.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

After six months of college at 18 years old, I dropped out. At the time, I didn’t see the value of sitting in class to hear about the business, I wanted to do the work. It wasn’t until about seven years later when I was further along in my career that I realized I needed to go back to school and invest in myself. A mentor pushed me to think long-term and ensure there were no barriers to fulfilling my potential. This led me to understand both the power of mentorship as well as the importance of rounding out my real-world work experience with a college education, providing me with more freedom to pick my path going forward.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

Thought leaders are those who pave the way for their organization, industry and society by solving problems in a way that demonstrates a deep, authentic understanding of the root issues. For me, this understanding starts with talking to your associates to create a two-way dialogue in which we can listen and learn.

This type of thought leadership is different from the typical leader, who often works top-down, or among a small circle of other senior leaders. For me, it is critical that the strategic direction of our organization comes from the voice of our associates. If I want to solve a problem, I start by listening to the people that are closest to the client — not only those sitting in the corporate office.

At the start of my career, I was always frustrated when we’d have a visitor from the corporate office and they’d only talk to the store manager or pharmacist. As someone working on the floor and talking to customers every day, my perspective was just as valuable. My time at the frontlines of customer care allowed me to experience the empowering effect of inclusive leadership and on the flipside the disengagement associated with exclusive leadership. Today, when I do virtual or in-person visits at one of our 1,000+ Banfield hospitals across the U.S., I make a point to speak and listen to everyone to ensure their voice dictates the vision and trajectory of our organization.

I believe this type of leadership is different from an influencer. Our associates are the real influencers — they’re the ones interacting and sharing advice with our clients. Being a thought leader isn’t about influencing people about just anything — it’s about solving real problems and influencing others to join you so that you can make not just your organization better, but society better as well.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

I think the benefit of being a thought leader — and why it’s worth investing time and energy in — is that it allows you to create real change in a way that is both authentic and scalable.

It’s authentic because thought leadership doesn’t come from a job title– it comes from genuine bottom-up belief in what you think and what you do. Like I mentioned before, that stems from a commitment to listening to all stakeholders at all levels within a company, including younger generations. At Banfield, over 75% of our associates are Millennials or Gen Z. As these younger generations move from minority to majority, it is critical to invest in a culture that demonstrates authenticity. This generation is looking for leaders who are transparent and who engage and listen. When you create opportunities for a two-way dialogue with your stakeholders, your output as a thought leader is much more informed by what’s really going on than a traditional leader’s output might be.

The second part is that it’s scalable. As president of Banfield, I’m responsible for the decisions I make and the change I bring about. As a thought leader, I can expand that influence across my industry and even beyond. In other words, a leader can change their own teams or organizations, but a thought can change the world.

I’d love to share with you an example of how we were able to apply this thinking at Banfield to help address a distressing issue in our industry: mental health. The veterinary profession is facing a crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six veterinarians considers suicide. In response to this devastating statistic, we introduced “ASK — Assess, Support, Know” — a first-of-its-kind suicide prevention training designed specifically for veterinary professionals to help them recognize and address emotional distress and suicidal thoughts. We felt it was our responsibility to not only share the resource with our own associates but also to share it with the entire industry which is why we made this free to veterinary professionals. You can learn more at

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

I truly believe that there’s a strong link between culture — which is often shaped and sustained by thought leadership — and business growth. The key to the creation of a positive culture is an open, two-way dialogue. In order to be a thought leader, you need to know what your associates are thinking, including their own ideas for how to improve business.

Associates need to feel that they can speak up and be heard without judgment in order for transformational conversations to take place. As leaders, it is our job to ensure that associates feel safe to speak up. I’ll give an example of how creating a safe space for honest, two-way dialogue led to a major breakthrough at Banfield. Several years ago, we had a high turnover. We started to talk to associates about what was really driving them to leave our practice. Through these open discussions, we learned that our associates were struggling with something that can be hard to talk about — health and wellbeing, including healthy finances. A key part of this was student debt — veterinarians graduate with the highest debt-to-income ratio of any profession, which was weighing heavily on our associates and holding them back from thriving in their career.

So, I started speaking up about the importance of financial health as part of a broader, holistic idea of wellbeing. Lots of companies talk about physical health, mental health, even emotional health, but financial health was a new aspect. And we didn’t just talk the talk — we introduced a Veterinary Student Debt Relief Program that helps ease that financial burden for our veterinarians. Since the program launched, we have enabled nearly $14 million in educational debt refinancing for our associates and contributed more than $8 million toward helping our veterinarians pay off their student loans. Not only is this revolutionary in the veterinary industry, but for any industry — only 4% of companies across the U.S. offer a student debt benefit.

As a result of our thought leadership and action on health and wellbeing, we have seen strong positive results including growth four times faster than the industry over the past five years and our turnover rate is the lowest it’s ever been.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry.

There are five strategies I’ve learned during my career path that has shaped me into the thought leader I am today:

  • Inclusion is a growth strategy. There is power in inclusion. Inclusion is part of larger societal wellbeing and an area where we are partnering with our associates to create change. Inclusion means that everyone’s voices are heard. Inclusion also expands outside of our practice and encompasses those from other industries and even competitors. In order to create true change within the industry and in society, you cannot be insular. I make it a priority to share our resources for the betterment of all. For example, every year we host our annual Pet Healthcare Industry Summit where we invite leaders from across the profession together for a day to discuss issues and opportunities in our industry. We share our insights, pull together the best thought leaders on a variety of topics, and come together for a very open discussion in efforts to solve industry and societal problems.
  • Strategy without empathy is wasted. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if people aren’t behind it you are wasting your time. For a strategy to be effective, you must understand the root cause of systemic issues. For example, when I first started at Banfield we didn’t have a grasp on why our turnover was so high. We invested in people analytics and found out that our associates were struggling with their own health and wellbeing. As we dug deeper, we learned that this wasn’t just us — this trend was occurring across the entire industry. Based on data, we created programs and services that got to the root of what was troubling our people, and then shared these best practices with the profession so we could all benefit.
  • Culture matters. Never underestimate the power of a positive culture. What I mean by this is when you’re faced with a challenge, encourage associates to be solutions minded as you address challenges in your organization. I encourage my team to use “yes, and” thinking so we can build off each other’s good ideas to find the right solution. It is amazing how creative people can be if they are encouraged in the right way to find solutions.
  • Build trust through two-way dialogue. While my title makes me a leader, the trust people put in me to solve problems makes me a thought leader. That trust stems directly from listening to and learning from my team to uncover what’s really happening in our hospitals — not just in the corporate office. One way I do this is by leveraging social media. With over 75% of our workforce being Millennial/Gen Z, I use social media to listen at scale. When I scroll through my Instagram feed, I can see what’s actually happening on our hospital floors, talk with our people and like the impact they’re making.
  • Look outside your profession. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t pretend to. There is a lot we can learn from analogous industries. We often look towards human healthcare, technology and retail organizations for inspiration. They help to show us different best practices and new ways of thinking that spark true innovation.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I think that it doesn’t matter what you call it — the importance is in the process of how you bring about real change in a way that is authentic. Our goal at Banfield is to be a beacon for how other companies ought to behave in a way that creates a better world for pets, people and society at large. It’s ultimately about the power of having a voice — and how that then gives you the power to change and improve business and society.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Health and wellbeing is an important conversation right now given the current civil unrest and COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us struggled with setting aside time for our own health and wellbeing prior to current events, and now it can be even more challenging. However, now — more than ever — we need to set aside time to take care of ourselves.

I remind my team that quality work starts with being healthy and energized. I often hear the excuse that people don’t have time to take care of themselves, but you must create the culture in your own organization that values health and wellbeing. It’s important to remember that you control culture no matter what your position is within the organization.

I also believe that offering hope, help and optimism are powerful antidotes to stress and burnout. When talking about solving problems — especially big, systemic ones — it’s easy to get bogged down in the roadblocks and negativity. Conversely, approaching problem solving through the lens of how we’re optimistic about our future creates contagious energy.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

We’re trying to impact society every day at Banfield! The intersection of pet health and societal wellbeing is a dual responsibility and drives our strategic decision making. By tackling student debt, putting our resources behind mental health awareness and supporting domestic violence victims with the Banfield Foundation’s Safer Together initiative, we are constantly focused on activating our associates to not only improve the workplace but make a lasting and positive impact on society through the millions of pets and clients we care for.

Right now, we are in the midst of an incredible movement. Voices from across the world are coming together to support the Black community, in an effort to end racism and injustice in all forms. I stand in solidarity with our Black colleagues and the entire Black community. I believe it’s essential to create an environment of belonging, where we can all bring our unique selves to work and allow people to show up as individuals. Inclusion unlocks our differences so we can have belonging; belonging is about being your unique and authentic self at home and work. At Banfield, we are committed to ensuring that each voice is heard and that we are all held accountable. We are taking steps to listen and meet at this moment. We believe our culture of inclusion and our humanity is made stronger by being here for each other. This is about humanity.

We have an opportunity to elevate humanity and create genuine systemic change. Society is calling on us as corporate leaders to do more than talk. I truly believe we are at an intersection of rhetoric and action, and it will be the companies who act at this moment who will thrive in the future.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality,” Ayn Rand.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Howard Schultz from Starbucks, John Legere formerly from T-Mobile and director/TV producer Larry David.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow me on Instagram @Brian_Garish. Feel free to direct message me if you’d like to connect.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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